Tom Wilson is an interesting case. His rookie 2013-14 season was deeply unfortunate: low ice time, problematic linemates, and very little offense. Since then, Wilson’s NHL career has been uneven – or at least it’s seemed that way. In November and December of 2014, he enjoyed a sudden promotion, sharing time with Alex Ovechkin and Nick Backstrom. It did not last. Wilson spent most of the next two seasons on the bottom six.
Smash cut: Wednesday, November 22. Tom Wilson has returned to the top line. It’s been a massive success so far. Now I’m wondering if anything has changed to make #TopLineTommy work this time.
For context, Wilson’s career has been full of promotions and demotions, and they’ve been weird as heck.
Those two peaks were his appearances in the top six, featuring time with the league’s premiere shooter, Alex Ovechkin, and they have given Wilson’s NHL career a pattern of feast or famine.
|Season||TOI w/ Ovechkin||% of Wilson’s TOI|
Wilson has either been on the top line or in the dregs of forward depth for five seasons, punctuated by those two quick stints on the top line. And those two stints are what I’m interested in now. I hate using rhetorical questions in my writing, but here are some anyway:
The answer to all three questions is No. But maybe not in the way you think. What follows are comparisons of Ovechkin-Backstrom-Wilson in two segments: 2014-15 and 2017-18. These numbers are 5-on-5 only.
First, what matters most.
|Season||TOI||Caps Goals||Opponent Goals|
Washington’s top line is red hot right now, but they were also red hot in late 2014. Back then, however, the goal margin wasn’t so large, and here’s why.
Back in 2014-15, the top line got (rare!) subpar goaltending, and they weren’t shooting particularly well either. On the other hand, the new model has a nuclear offense, saving basically everything (38 of 39 shots faced).
That might seem like a suggestion that the 2017-18 top line isn’t as offensively potent as they were back in 2014-15. That is not the case. Here are the Caps’ offensive rates per hour.
|Season||High Danger Chances||Scoring Chances||On Goal||Shot Attempts|
They are eerily close to one another. The Caps generated good high-danger and scoring chances in both incarnations. To me, that’s hugely important. It suggests that goal production might continue even once shooting percentage cools off.
For his part, Wilson’s individual contributions have also been stable. His shot generation barely dipped (from 9.8 to 9.5 attempts per hour), though he’s driving to the net more (his high-danger chances have ticked up from 2.6 to 3.9 per hour, though that may not last as the 2017-18 sample grows). Wilson’s not driving the bus (fewer than one in five shot attempts belong to him), but the bus is running smoothly. Both sides of the ice have been good, then and now.
Of course, 85.7 percent of goals is out of control and cannot last, but I think this demonstrates a few important points:
So no, Wilson’s player development has not finally ended, and no, he’s not a top-liner at last, and no, he’s not doing what it takes to stick this time around. Because he did all those things three years ago.
Nonetheless, on December 21, 2014, Barry Trotz benched Wilson mid-game. The next day, Trotz scratched Wilson.”Too many pucks are dying with Tom right now,” Trotz told the media. “He’s got to get his feet moving. There are too many turnovers for him.”
By the end of December 27, Wilson’s stint with Ovechkin and Backstrom was over. They’d have reunions in March 2015 and again in late February/early March 2017, but they were fleeting. Since, away from the top line, Wilson’s value as an NHLer has not always been obvious. But now, three years later, Tom Wilson might just be a top-liner for good.
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